“Bucket Brigade” Struggles to Save Trees Planted After Joplin, MO Tornado

By Andra Bryan Stefanoni

Joplin, MO (July 23, 2012) – Volunteers, arborists, and urban foresters are waging a battle to save the 6,551 urban trees under siege from excessive heat and lack of rain. They were donated and planted in the storm-damaged areas of Joplin and Duquesne—replacements for the 15,000 to 20,000 trees destroyed in the May 22, 2011, tornado. So far, it seems to be working, but no one is sure how much longer it will.

In the woodlands of Southwest Missouri, old black oaks — ancient for their species — are dying. In urban lawns, river birches have dropped their leaves as a defense mechanism. In Joplin parks, insects such as the apple tree borer are advancing on young maples, preparing to attack.

The trees are under siege from all sides after last summer’s excessive heat and lack of rain, followed by a winter that saw virtually no snow, and now, the worst drought in 50 years.

Waging a counterattack are volunteers, arborists and urban foresters. Their primary goal, they say, is to save the 6,551 trees that have been donated and planted in the storm-damaged areas of Joplin and Duquesne — replacements for the 15,000 to 20,000 destroyed in the May 22, 2011, tornado.

So far, it seems to be working, but no one is sure how much longer it will.

Ric Mayer, who started work Feb. 6 as Joplin’s new tree coordinator, conducted a survey Monday afternoon to assess whether any more of the young saplings planted in Joplin parks had succumbed to stress brought on by weeks of temperatures hovering at 100 degrees and just 1.62 inches of rain since June 1.

Amazingly, Mayer said, of the 562 trees planted, only 14, or less than 3 percent, were “struggling to death,” meaning they will not survive.

“I talked to foresters, and they are amazed we have such a good retention rate,” he said. “Typically, you can expect through vandalism, poor planting, etc., you can lose 20 percent of the trees you plant in a public setting because they don’t get the same care as they would in a yard. Of course, that’s in a typical year.”

What’s making the difference for Joplin trees, Mayer said, are volunteers and other workers.

Twice weekly, a team of six participants in the Workforce Investment Board’s federally funded program for workers displaced by the storm divides into two crews. In trucks outfitted with plastic water tanks and hoses, they head to Joplin parks in the tornado zone.

“We would be in such trouble without them,” Mayer said.

Program administrator Sam Schaumann said the workers are “focused on doing their very best to keep trees that were planted surviving until we get through this extremely hot, dry weather.”

“They’re going park to park, tree to tree, administering as much water to try to do everything we can to keep these young trees surviving, which is a real task under the circumstances,” Schaumann said.

In addition, hundreds of volunteers, coordinated through AmeriCorps, are fighting the good fight to keep the trees alive.

“We provided a bunch of buckets for bucket brigades, and they use the water faucets at each of the city parks to fill them,” Mayer said.

Altogether, the city is seeing 340 volunteer hours per week from those watering trees.

Related Resources
“‘Bucket Brigade’ Sets Out to Save Young Trees,” Joplin Globe, July 26, 2012
“Joplin Volunteers  Work to Save Thousands of Newly-Planted Trees”
Tornado-Replacement Trees Threatened by Drought